‘Now more than ever, Britain needs to be inclusive’
My parents, who moved to Britain from Pakistan, were working class – but worked hard, with integrity and hope. The results are their children. One of my siblings is a head and neck surgeon, another a respected author and journalist. In the New Year’s Honours list, I received a CBE. I’m not saying this to brag, but to show potential.
My career began as a teacher in Bradford, and I am now Deputy CEO of QED, helping others to live the best lives they can, promoting education and employment. I say this, because I was born in this country of Pakistan origin and Muslim faith; I’m an ethnic minority at a time in this country where we have been bombarded with anti-immigration rhetoric from all mainstream parties, pre-election.
If any of us look about two, three or more generations back, chances are you’ll be an immigrant. Whether it be our (ex) politicians such as Ed Milliband or one of our great ‘British’ minds in history, such as Sigmund Freud. Even the great British institution– Marks and Spencers - was founded by a refugee from Belarus.
There is a prevailing myth that immigrants come to exploit the welfare state. Steal ‘our’ jobs, a drain on the NHS, on benefits. And yet, British people must earn £18,600 before their non-EU spouse can move here. They must also have basic English language skills to enter the UK, which is where QED comes in. We have spent the last six years working with Third Country National women with support from European Union Funds for integration of third country nationals, delivering language and integration courses.
There’s no doubt, many EU and non-EU immigrants do jobs that are low paid or low skilled. The fear from some economists is this structurally weakens ‘British’ worker’s bargaining power for higher wages. This is a myth too.
Yes, there are those who pick strawberries, because no-one else will do mundane, back-aching work for low pay. They keep the UK’s farming industries alive when food producers are being squeezed by the high profit margins of supermarkets. There are also those who become our nurses, teachers, and shop-keepers, alongside those who are entrepreneurial and bring big business, and employment.
Whatever your views on immigration, it is as old as the hills in our British Isles. I want to explode a few myths, and stereotypes around the women immigrants I have met.
In the past few weeks I’ve talked to 340 women on QED integration programmes running across West Yorkshire that teach English language and help equip women, who have come here to marry. These are women from Pakistan, the Middle East, Bangladesh, Africa, India…all of these women have left what they knew about life behind to live with their husbands. They’ve left their parents, siblings, culture, familiarity and love. They have moved to a radically different culture. Some of the women I met have been here as little as a month, others for 35 years, and both spectrums were passionate about engaging in learning English, in becoming part of British society.
What I’ve learned from meeting all these women is how much they’ve embraced living in this country, and their huge desire to integrate into British society. 100 per cent felt learning English was the first step to an active social and economic life on their community. They embrace this opportunity, to contribute, to take charge of the health and education of their families. 60 per cent wanted to work, despite the majority being mothers of young children. They wanted to move on to further qualifications. Many cited jobs in health – hospitals, care homes – others in schools – and others wanted to set up their own businesses.
A burden to society? If you’ve ever lost a loved one in an NHS hospital, you probably would have met one of these women, working a night shift, looking after that most precious of things – whether it be end-of-life care for our elderly relatives, or on the maternity ward.
Many of the women I spoke to are inspirational. They knew the value of life here. The freedom, the legal structure of gender equality, they didn’t enjoy in their home countries. The opportunity.
What QED’s classes have given many – even those 40 per cent who were well qualified in their home countries – was confidence. To speak English with their children, born here, and to engage with their teachers. To make doctors’ appointments, to learn to drive, be independent regardless of their husbands. And to pursue careers, whether it be as nurses or entrepreneurs.
Anti-immigration rhetoric has done much damage to our social fabric, and lets down the thousands of migrants, who have settled in Britain and chosen to make a life here.
Hope and compassion are the greatest benefit to our communities.
I hope these women’s stories show we shouldn’t choose exclusion and fear, or think of third-class citizenship.
But hope. Britain’s economy, and culture has always thrived from being open and inclusive, with values of fairness and freedom.
Now, more than ever, we need to be inclusive. It’s our connection to our neighbours and communities that give value and strength.